"(R) Four stars
Little Miss Sunshine gets four stars because it is so consistently funny and so wonderfully acted that it engenders a feeling of goodwill strong enough that you simply dismiss the rough spots in the production. You notice the problem areas — I’ll run through them in a bit — but they don’t matter. An air of goodwill like this is rare in a movie, especially a bittersweet comedy. When it occurs, the smartest thing to do is to simply sit back and enjoy the ride.
The dysfunctional family roll call goes like this: Head of household Richard (Greg Kinnear, in desperately-upbeat mode), is a motivational speaker wannabe on the brink of making it big. He’d better, having spent all of his money creating a worthy presentation package for his multi-step road-to-success plan. Sheryl (Toni Collette, good as always) serves as supportive wife and devoted mother, but she is fraying at the edges. Grandpa (a spirited Alan Arkin) talks bluntly about sex (and everything else, for that matter). He’s been tossed out of the old folks’ home for his drug activities. Sheryl’s brother, Frank (Steve Carell, beautifully underplaying his role), is on the mend following a suicide attempt. A prominent Proust scholar, he came unglued when his boyfriend left him for his chief rival, who also got the prestigious grant Frank was up for. Oh, and he also lost his job.
Richard and Sheryl have two kids. Dwayne (Paul Dano) is a Nietzche-reading teen who has taken a vow of silence until the day he can become a fighter pilot. Finally, there’s Olive (Abigail Breslin), a charming 7-year-old with big dreams. Early in the proceedings, Olive learns she has become the area winner of one of those terribly creepy little girl beauty contests by default. To get Olive to the Big Pageant, the pressed-for-cash family must take her in a clunky VW bus, setting the road trip into motion.
Is the family too quirky for words? Yes. Does the film play like a big sit-com? Certainly. Does it all get too sloppy at the end? Absolutely. Does any of that matter? Not a bit! That’s how funny and wonderfully acted the movie is. Contrivances be damned, the movie works. Little Miss Sunshine is messy, but it gets the important stuff right.